You are here:

Military Policy & Weapons/Why are US and Russian nuclear arsenals still so big?


Why are the nuclear arsenals of the US and Russia still so big even after the Cold War is literally a quarter century in the past and the arms race is over?

I mean other nations have arsenals of only a hundred to maybe a few hundred, where as the US and Russian ones are in the few thousand.

If other nations can do well with hundreds, couldn't the US and Russia do as well?

And why aren't they reducing their arsenals to hundreds?


American government officials, including Henry Kissinger, George Shultz, Sam Nunn, and William Perry who were in office during the Cold War period, now advocate the elimination of nuclear weapons in the belief that the doctrine of mutual Soviet-American deterrence is obsolete, and that reliance on nuclear weapons for deterrence is becoming increasingly hazardous and decreasingly effective in the post-cold war era. The four have created the Nuclear Security Project to advance this agenda.

They argue that "with nuclear weapons more widely available, deterrence is decreasingly effective and increasingly hazardous" and conclude that although "it is tempting and easy to say we can't get there from here . . . we must chart a course toward that goal." During his Presidential campaign, U.S. President Elect Barack Obama pledged to "set a goal of a world without nuclear weapons, and pursue it."

Proponents of nuclear disarmament say that it would lessen the probability of nuclear war occurring, especially accidentally. Detractors, however argue that nuclear weapons have made the world relatively safer, with peace through deterrence. They posit the following points:

• Nuclear weapons guarantee our security by discouraging others from risky military adventures against us.
• Nuclear weapons cannot be “uninvented,” and total nuclear disarmament, even if it was a good idea, is not feasible. Therefore, we should remain the strongest in nuclear weapons.
• U.S. nuclear policy does not influence the decisions of other nations on this issue. They will make their own decisions.
• As a last resort, we may need to use nuclear weapons to protect the United States. To do this, we may need to update our nuclear arsenal.
• Nuclear weapons make the behavior of states more predictable and encourage international stability.
• Maintaining a deterrent capability without nuclear weapons would be financially impossible because of the costs of developing so many equally powerful conventional weapons.

The United States has a total inventory of 4,650 nuclear weapons, including nearly 2,000 actively deployed warheads. Russia has roughly the equivalent and is working with the United States to reduce stockpiles. In contrast, China possesses an estimated 300 nuclear weapons, or roughly 6 percent of the U.S. stockpile.

The total number of nuclear warheads in the world has been declining, primarily due to Russia and the U.S. continuing to reduce their nuclear arsenals. Together, their arsenals account for more than 90 per cent of global inventories of nuclear weapons. The pace of reductions appears to be slowing compared with a decade ago, however, and neither country has made substantial cuts in its deployed strategic nuclear forces since bilaterally agreeing the 2010 Treaty on Measures for the Further Reduction and Limitation of Strategic Offensive Arms (“New START”). At the same time, both Moscow and Washington have extensive and expensive modernization programs underway for their nuclear delivery systems, warheads and production facilities.

For a table comparing the arsenals of nuclear weapons states, see:

Military Policy & Weapons

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


James Bruno


Diplomacy and foreign affairs. How government decision-making takes place. Interactions of the White House, State Dept., Pentagon, Congress and CIA in formulating policy. How governments deal with each other. Area expertise includes Afghanistan, Indochina, Europe, Cuba. Served in Guantanamo. Currently a member of the Diplomatic Readiness Reserve and Standby Response Corps.


23-years as a diplomat with the U.S. State Dept. Previously at the Defense Dept. Prior to joining government, worked as a journalist with major news organizations.

CBS-News, UPI; various newspapers. Bestselling novelist: TRIBE, PERMANENT INTERESTS and CHASM.

M.A. - U.S. Naval War College
M.A. - Columbia Univ.
B.A. - George Washington Univ.

Awards and Honors
Various in government.

©2017 All rights reserved.